Celtic Surnames

Tomas O Flannghaile
For the Tongue of the Gael
Celtic Surnames

While it is only too true that Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all during the last 300 years suffered a certain amount of anglicising—in blood, in language, in manners and customs, and in ways of thinking—it may be asked, is this a statement of the whole case? Has not the process been checked in various ways and at various times?

And further, has no counter current set in—has there been no movement in an opposite direction?

As a matter of fact, many observers have noted such a movement.

Some years ago, in an early number of the Revue Celtique of Paris, M. Gaidoz the editor expressed his belief that while, no doubt, the Celtic countries had been anglicised to a considerable extent, the process was on the wane, and that for the last couple of hundred years there had actually been going on at the same time a gradual re-celticising of Britain, and even of England.

This, he maintained, was shown partly by the steady growth and spread of Celtic surnames in England, but only partly in this way, the re-celticising in blood being much more widespread than family names would indicate, owing to the long-prevailing tendency to anglicise Celtic names by translation, abbreviation, or other mode of corruption.

If this be so, Celts may well feel some gratification at the fact, and may look upon it as some measure of compensation for their partial displacement in their own countries.

There is, of course, a great difference between the two processes, while the anglicising has been enforced and of set purpose, the re-celticising (of England and of Britain generally) has been going on silently and unconsciously. But of the reality of this latter process there can be no doubt.

For the last two hundred years, and especially within the present century, owing to migrations and emigrations, there has been a steady influx of Celtic families from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland into England; and at this day, if it could be plainly demonstrated that half the people of England were Celtic in blood, the fact would not be and should not be strange.

And if Celtic ideas are now stirring men’s hearts and minds in England, if Celtic aspirations are listened to with respect, who will deny that such a hopeful state of things is due quite as much to this strong infusion of warm, generous Celtic blood, as to the vigorous protests of the Celts themselves in their own homes, combined with the subtler influences of Celtic literature, music and art?

The extent of this Celtic element in England is evidenced in some measure, doubtless, by the increasing number of Celtic surnames to be found in the country, but, as pointed out by Henri Gaidoz, this is not by any means the full measure of its extent; for not only is the temptation to assimilate a decidedly Celtic name to an English one all the greater when the owner of it comes to England, but a great number of such names had already undergone considerable change in their original home.

Hence there are far more men of Celtic blood than there are Celtic names, many of these latter having become anglicised beyond all hope of recognition.

In some of these cases, no doubt, self-interest has induced not merely a change of name, but also a change of feeling and sympathy, and a forgetting of old ties. But after all, blood is thicker than water, and kinship counts for something still.

And considering all things, it is wonderful how distinctive most Celtic names have kept themselves, and how comparatively easy they are to recognise, even in the most un-Celtic parts of Saxon-land.

Though the great bulk of these surnames have had an Irish, Scottish, or Welsh origin, a considerable number have come also from Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and the other more Celtic parts of Northern France. These last—the Breton and other Franco-Celtic names—are probably the hardest to trace and recognise now, as they have been longest in the country; but they are probably also the fewest in number.

In the Western half of England—say west of a line drawn from Berwick to the Isle of Wight, and including especially Cumberland, Westmoreland, Lancashire, all Wales, the border counties, Cheshire, Shropshire, Hereford, and Monmouth, with Gloucester, Somerset, Devonshire, and Cornwall—it is generally admitted that Celtic blood predominates, and Celtic surnames, though often much disguised, are in one form or another the majority.

But far beyond these limits, into the easternmost counties and the remotest parishes, Celtic surnames have found their way.

Many Cornish names, restricted though their original seat is, have spread into the southern and south-eastern parts of England. ‘By Tre, Pol, and Pen you’ll know Cornish men,’ says the old rhyme, and the saying is illustrated by such well-known names as Trevelyan, Trelawney, Treherne, Trevor, Polwhele, Pentreath, Pendennis, &c. But though these are all Celtic words, they are not originally patronymics but place-names, which from denoting at first merely residences or estates of their owners, afterwards became family names.

Tre is the Welsh tre or tref (home, hamlet), Irish treabh (house, family, tribe), Latin tribus, English thorp; pol is the Welsh pwll, Irish poll (a hole, pit, pool); pen is the Welsh pen (a head, end, hill), and O. Irish cenn now ceann (head, headland), and also beinn (a hill, a summit).

Such English surnames as Preston, Stafford, Darbyshire, Oldham, Birmingham, Kent, Hull, and the like are examples of the same sort.

It will thus be seen that Cornish names—at least this class—are entirely different not only from Irish surnames, which are always patronymics, but even from the generality of Welsh names, which are mostly patronymics, and but rarely place-names.

This is all the stranger from the proximity of the Welsh and Cornish peoples and the very slight difference there is between the Welsh and Cornish languages.

The reason appears to be that Cornwall, from its smaller area and more isolated position, was more thoroughly Normanised in its name-system than Wales ever was or could be—the custom of naming or styling a man from the place he belonged to (or that belonged to him) being more Norman than either Celtic or English.

It is also true that when the Tre-, Pol-, and Pen-names came to be fixed as surnames, many of those who bore them were not the native or Celtic Cornish at all, but Normans or English who had become the landholders of the country. So that it should be remembered that though, such names are Celtic, they do not always indicate families of Celtic blood.

While, however, these are the better known Cornish names, there are numerous families still in Cornwall and Devonshire whose names are not taken from places, but, like the Welsh and Irish, are really patronymics—that is, names indicating a father or ancestor; as the Vyvyans, Oliphants, Kennalls, Jenners, Keigwins, Scawens, and others, and these are generally the most purely Celtic, both in name and blood.